Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration: Louis Gump Of Cambian Solutions On How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches

An Interview with Karen Mangia

Karen Mangia
Authority Magazine

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Listen actively. The most effective leaders seek to understand. The most effective leaders seek to contribute. An important way to do this is by learning from others. And to do this, one must truly listen. When you listen, you get not only the words that are said, but also can notice themes. Often, you can detect unsaid aspects of what’s important to someone and will truly help them to excel.

The number one leadership initiative in any organization today is improved coaching. Coaching empowers employees, empowerment drives engagement, and engagement drives performance. At its core, coaching is about transformation. Leading distributed teams requires transforming how we coach and changing our play calls and playbooks to get things done. As a part of our interview series called “Moving From Command & Control to Coaching & Collaboration; How Leaders and Managers Can Become Better Coaches,” we had the pleasure to interview Louis Gump, author of The Inside Innovator.

Louis K. Gump is a business builder, transformational leader, and pragmatic optimist. He has worked globally recognizable companies including CNN and The Weather Channel, developing talented teams and achieving remarkable success for growth businesses. He is the author of the forthcoming business book, The Inside Innovator: A Practical Guide to Intrapreneurship (on sale March 12, 2024).

Thank you for joining us to explore a critical inflection point in how we define leadership. Our readers would like to get to know you better. What was a defining moment that shaped who you are as a leader?

One of the defining moments was when our team at The Weather Channel simultaneously developed and then launched our first iPhone and Android apps in the fall of 2008. After years of saying that mobile would be big someday, and preparing by building the extended team and learning, the time had come to deliver on a new and much more visible stage. Actually multiple stages. Apple had launched the iPhone in the summer of 2007 and then introduced the App Store in the summer of 2008. In the meantime, Android (which had been bought by Google) was supporting the launch of a range of devices and also had introduced its own app store, Android Market (now Google Play). We had a leading role in mobile media and wanted to be among the first. However we didn’t have the resources to do both at first. In the spring of 2008, we were a little stumped about how to develop for them simultaneously. And then our team found a solution. We would have one team build an app internally for Android (which used a programming language that we could more readily find superior programmers for) while we outsourced a sizable portion of development for the iPhone app. Then we assigned teams to each project. It was hairy and difficult. We had to learn so many new things that we sometimes wondered how we would deliver in the timeframe we wanted. After days and weeks and months of hard work, we delivered both within a month in the fall of 2008- the Android app on October 22, 2008 and the iPhone app on November 9, 2008. While we had these internal goals, our focus was on serving our customers. These apps became some of the most downloaded and used apps of all time on mobile phones, serving tens of millions of people over time. We started then with a plan to bring talented people together with knowledge, capabilities and improvisation as we did things that not only we hadn’t done before, but also no one else we knew had done before. We were contributing to the creation of a new era in delivering mobile data and enabling connections for people to the info that mattered to them. This process occurred with major benefits for people’s daily lives as well as safety during severe weather.

The growth of The Weather Channel’s mobile business was one of the best examples of successful intrapreneurship that I’ve ever been associated with. It involved multiple generations of leadership- past, present and future. Our successes built on the hard work that the Batten family, Dubby Wynne, John Coleman and many others had done to build The Weather Channel and establish a strong brand. Then it expanded further on the hard work that Debora Wilson, Joe Fiveash, Paul Iaffaldano and team had done to build weather.com. Then we saw the payoff for the vision of many who had agreed to invest in mobile weather products, services and infrastructure in our company over a period of about ten years, leading to this breakthrough moment. Further, successive generations including people like Cameron Clayton and Wendy Frazier extended this success into the future. It was a lesson in something small becoming big, and in turn feeding an enormous amount of value for the company. It was also an occasion when we had to find creative ways to assign people to teams in a compressed timeframe and then trust that they would deliver on their roles, with dozens of people involved in various aspects of supporting the launch, from app development to relationship management to technology and infrastructure to marketing and PR. And it showed how we as a team could usher in a new era together, in a way that not only reached people on mobile devices, but also enhanced and expanded the relevance of the overall brand.

John C. Maxwell is credited with saying, “A leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” How do you embody that quote as a leader?

I have three core values in professional work: Do the right thing, serve our customers, and move forward. It’s one thing to say them and another to do them. I strive to practice them every day.

Doing the right thing means acting in a way that is grounded in ethics, and when necessary choosing the path based on principles over the path of expedience or comfort. It involves understanding your values in a way that drives positive change and helps people develop their talents. It means taking the time to sit down for a mentoring session when someone asks, even when you have an seemingly endless to-do list.

Serving our customers means going the extra mile, even if it’s more expensive and time-consuming. It entails doing the research and listening to customers before and after product launches, even if you have strong pre-existing views about how to develop a product. It means truly listening and adapting based on customer needs.

Moving forward means keeping focus on the future, while honoring the best aspects of the past and learning from various experiences to grow over time. It means being able to celebrate successes while also knowing that continuous improvement leads to additional breakthroughs. It involves an opportunity mindset, especially when we encounter new people, technology and processes along the way.

How do you define the differences between a leader as a manager and a leader as a coach?

It’s been said that leadership is about doing the right things, and management is about doing things right. Literally interpreted, a leader as a manager is largely focused on making sure that the outcomes are consistent with the goals, and that a team adjusts as operations continue and the learning journey unfolds. Also literally interpreted, a leader as coach is more focused on enabling others to deliver results instead of being the person who gets the work done directly; also a leader as coach enables others to develop to reach more of their full potential, even if that development has little to do with near-term operational needs. Now in my experience, the best leaders combine these two and blur the distinctions; the best leaders both manage to achieve outcomes while also always being dedicated to helping others who work with them to grow.

We started our conversation by noting that improved coaching is the number one leadership initiative in any organization today. What are some essential skills and competencies that leaders must have now to be better coaches?

Leaders must be able to listen. Listening helps a leader to be a more effective coach. Leaders also use data when available, and try to create new sources of data to increase understanding of themselves and others. This includes proven diagnostics that help to spot opportunities and strengths, while increasing awareness of potential challenges or areas for improvement. One note of a balance here: the most effective leaders use data often but are not solely confined to it. Intuition and judgment have roles too. My guideline is to gather as much data as practical in the time available within reason, and then never let the data get in the way of a good decision.

Leaders also commit themselves to ongoing relationships, not just results. While results are important, the relationships between coaches and others are what make a lot of the magic happen. When others feel heard, feel free to offer their thoughts and receive guidance, and are in an environment where relationships include high levels of trust, then there is fertile ground for better coaching.

We’re all familiar with the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” How are you inspiring — rather than mandating — leaders to invest in upskilling and reskilling?

A lot of success in this area revolves around identifying strengths and tapping into them. When you understand what others are good at and then help to match their strengths to the opportunities at hand, then you’re a lot more likely to succeed. Also an inspiring leader typically can paint a clear picture of goals and values. You may catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but you also spend a lot less time correcting issues if you’ve prevented them by ensuring that you’re on the right path in the first place. I like another old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and think that by some clear insight and ongoing relationships, you can significantly increase the probability that a given approach will work. Learning is critically important, and all of us need to upskill and re-skill over time. Sometimes this is because of advances in technology and sometimes it’s because of a change in focus. When I went to NewsON, I thought we were building a mobile business with a little streaming. Turned out that it was a streaming business with a little mobile, at least at the time. Others on our team and I needed to build the chops quickly to understand the rapidly developing streaming space. By doing so, we took a commanding and public leadership position in our part of the marketplace while driving innovation.

Let’s get more specific. How do you coach someone to do their best work? How can leaders coach for peak performance in our current context? What are your “Top 5 Ways That Leaders and Managers Can Be Effective Coaches?”

Listen actively. The most effective leaders seek to understand. The most effective leaders seek to contribute. An important way to do this is by learning from others. And to do this, one must truly listen. When you listen, you get not only the words that are said, but also can notice themes. Often, you can detect unsaid aspects of what’s important to someone and will truly help them to excel. Often, good coaches listen not only to the person who is being coached but also others who know that person and help provide a sense of place and impact, additional reference points. When a person listens actively and well, they also model that for the person they’re speaking with. I once was speaking with a talented team member who was an executive assistant at the time. She really wanted to become a project manager but wasn’t sure how to approach this. I listened to her aspirations, then we looked at her interests and skills, and she charted a path to grow over a period of time. She read on her own, met more project management professionals, uncovered opportunities to develop her skills, and over time achieved her ambitions. This transformation came from a welcoming forum for discussions that went broader than tactical needs of the day, and then involved her own initiative, plus a practical plan and patience to achieve a goal over time.

Visualize a positive outcome, to benefit various stakeholders in line with core values of lifting people up.

From the boardroom to the Olympic playing field and far beyond, it’s been observed that “You’re always moving in the direction of your currently dominant thoughts.” How disciplined are you about spending much of your time and energy on the positive outcome, not on negative feelings or concerns? This has at least two parts. One is the visualization of what you hope to accomplish. This has a very powerful impact, both at conscious and unconscious levels. Also it specifically displaces and dwarfs the thing that most everyone does from time to time (especially when we feel tired or overwhelmed or wonder if we’re up to the task)… what happens if we fail? It’s so easy to focus on the impact of negative outcomes that we spend more time on it than is healthy and then for reasons that are now often well documented, we move toward that outcome in part because we dwell on it so much. Now, it’s important to think about things that we’re concerned about, acknowledge them and plan for them. However a large majority of the work should be on visualizing the positive outcomes and then taking actions and planning for them to happen, with clarity. This is true from large missions to simple word games- visualize a positive outcome and you have a head start that will sustain you. Our teams have practiced that repeatedly, including when we built The Weather Channel’s mobile business over time.

Reinforce grit. Life’s hard. Difficult things happen. Failure happens. We make mistakes. When these things occur, how do you respond? No one gets a free pass to avoid things that are very difficult. Everyone will have things that are not only challenging, but at times, are life-altering. When these things happen, it helps to have the ability to respond and bounce back. Victor Frankl and many others have emphasized that we don’t always have the ability to choose what happens, but we always have the ability to choose our response. George Patton said something to the effect that the true test of a person is not what they do when they’re on top, but what they do when they hit bottom. By coaching others through both the successes (and building on them) and the failures or setbacks (and learning from them), they grow stronger and, in turn, make us stronger and more empathetic. Early in the development of a mobile business, I once experienced the failure of a major mobile web and app platform on a high-visibility day. That was very difficult; we used this as an opportunity to replace and reinforce our infrastructure so that we were ready for even bigger peaks in the future. Grit is a key characteristic of great leaders. Great coaches know and teach this in the course of conversations and actions. They continually emphasize the positive contributions and strengths of others.

Speak candidly and respectfully when addressing areas for improvement. In a coaching relationship, your role is not just to sing praises but also at times to course correct. The person you’re working with benefits from this. And the conversations can be tricky at times, on topics that are sensitive, difficult or both. When this is the case, how do you go after it? Sometimes the best approach is straight down the middle. Many coaches take pride in their bluntness and candor. This works some of the time, but not all of the time. A great coach has the respect for others and emotional intelligence to assess the situation and then adapt style to it as well as the person. Remember, the goal is not for you to say something, it’s to be heard. I once had a team member who was having challenges getting along with another person. This team member thought it was all the other person’s fault. The reality is that the responsibility was shared; through direct and open conversation, these two talented professionals built a much stronger working relationship. Great coaches say things in a way that they’re both said and heard. Coaches who truly excel consistently are not only heard, but are also trusted so much that they are listened to. Others take action and change behavior as appropriate so the person who is being coached grows and becomes more effective and fulfilled over time. It’s hard if not impossible to do this with a perfect track record as a coach, but it’s entirely possible to have an excellent success percentage. By the way, this sometimes involves tried and true approaches, and sometimes involves experimentation. A coach should be willing to grow in methods too, and be willing to take some risks, especially when there are obvious ways to help a person grow but your message is not resonating with your normal style. So within wide boundaries, be willing to adapt your style to the person and grow yourself even as you help others.

Remember the whole person. You may be coaching in a professional setting for very specific purposes, but you’re still working with a human being. This person has interests and needs not just in your professional setting, but also more broadly. They have their own unique story. Maybe they like hiking or biking or reading or gaming or knitting. Maybe they have close family or close friends. Maybe they’re at the top of the world outside of work or going through a hard time. Maybe they’re in a time of great growth outside of work or maybe they’re just trying to get by. Maybe they have kids who won’t go to sleep at night or dogs that need to be walked in the middle of the day. From time to time I’ve seen some very talented and successful team members who are experiencing profound loss or other stress with a family member. While some version of this is not uncommon, at times there are particularly acute needs. When this happens, it’s often possible to adapt by taking some of the load or demands off of someone’s plate while they focus on the needs at home for a time, and then they can refocus after navigating through this difficulty. Whatever it is, and within the boundaries of what’s appropriate for your situation, it helps to know the whole person. In some cultures, it’s common to spend some time just speaking about things outside of work before coming around to business. Also, some people at times work so hard that they sacrifice their personal fulfillment and relationships consistently and unnecessarily.

As a coach, remember that while you may have a specific job to help someone with skills, such as project management or leadership or speaking, they have lives outside of work too. Then meet them where they are. I once had a teacher whose primary job was to teach me a language. She did that for my classmates and me in a remarkable way. However, she also taught us a lot about life. While we did learn how to put sentences together, what many of us in her class remember are the life lessons, as well as the laughs and experiences we had as we learned together. As a coach, you can benefit people in profound ways that go beyond the narrow confines of a specific function, and in a way that leaves positive life experiences and growth.

We’re leading and coaching in increasingly diverse organizations. And one aspect of workforce diversity on the rise is generational diversity. What advice would you offer about how to effectively coach a multi-generational workforce? And how do you activate the collective potential of a multi-generational workforce?

This is very important. Tim Elmore recently published a book called A New Kind of Diversity on this very topic. It starts by ensuring that all people are welcome and respected, with multiple types of differences. One of those is age and generation. It turns out that different people can bring different and uniquely valuable ways of doing things specifically through this lens. People who are earlier in their careers can often provide uniquely valuable and fresh perspectives. They are also often foundationally comfortable with new technology that they’ve been using actively. People who are farther along in their careers often add domain knowledge, connections to a broader network, and wisdom that helps to improve decision making. Each generation can add in its own way. When they are combined, you get the best opportunity to have a positive outcome in many situations.

You’re referring to emotional intelligence, in a sense. What are two steps every leader can take to demonstrate a higher level of emotional intelligence?

Once again, listening with the intent to understand is key- not just intellectually but also more broadly. Part of this active listening involves understanding that much of the way that people approach things and react to situations is related to emotion as much as intellect.

Also, understanding that people respond differently in relatively normal situations than they do at times of high stress is helpful. You can then adjust approaches accordingly, and this awareness (both generally and also specifically based on the situation) is an extremely important part of emotional intelligence.

Words matter. And we’re collectively creating a new leadership language right now. What are the most important words for leaders to use now?

Authenticity is one. Innovation (of course) is important as we adapt. Grit is another one — even when we try to be positive and supportive, hard things happen. We need to be clear about that up front and then use it as needed. The word authenticity is used a lot, and yet it retains its power. It means to show up as you are. When having a conversation, you can share some of the things that are important to you, not just to the function. It means for example that you can write and speak in your own voice, in multiple situations. Innovation is important because it suggests that we can learn, create and evolve. We can find new ways to deploy a successful product line and find new products for existing customers. Grit is used to navigate through the inevitable ups and downs of work and life. If we have a product launch that gains less traction that expected, then we find out why; if we misunderstand someone, then we apologize and seek to understand again; if we’re tired and have a team member that needs our attention, we dig down to be present and patient even when our tank is on low. And then we have ways to recharge and sustain ourselves in ways that align with values and lifting people up.

I keep inspiring quotes on my desk. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and why does it mean so much to you?

“There’s no limit to what you can do as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” Is one of my favorite life lessons quotes. It’s not about me, it’s not about any one of us alone. It’s how we contribute to others, to our organization, to our community, to our world. And if we do things because we believe it’s the right thing to do, and do them regardless of who knows about it, then some great things can happen. Robert Woodruff at The Coca-Cola Company kept a version of this quote on his desk, and I have remembered it for years as a foundational way to look at service and action, always in the service of others and contribution. I believe that one of the highest expressions of service is when we accomplish something big as a group, and acknowledge actively and in detail the roles of others. We celebrate the successes of the group and the individuals in that group overall, finding fulfillment in the achievement of goals and the elevation of people, organizations and communities.

Our readers often like to continue the conversation. What’s the best way for readers to connect with you and to stay current on what you’re discovering?

Readers can go to my website at louisgump.com to connect with me. At this website, they can also find more information about my new book, The Inside Innovator, which publishes on March 12th. We offer some of the most important information about the book there today, and will be providing additional resources over time on how to innovate inside larger organizations. They can also learn more on my LinkedIn page, including links to podcasts and other topics of interest.

Thank you for sharing your insights. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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